Labor Commons

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Tom Walker:

"Not only can employment be regarded as one more common pool resource among others, it can also be argued that it is the common pool resource par excellence – the instance that stands as the single most far-reaching and democratically vital model of a common pool resource. Donald Stabile alluded to something in this vein when he noted that, "Human labor is also the primary constituent of the society whose values must be part of any criterion of social evaluation.The appropriate starting point in any policy directed at social costs is with those imposed on labor." (


Hilary Wainwright:

"We have seen that at the origins of the crisis lies a profound and systemic rebellion again an economy which depends on human creativity being treated as a commodity. Capitalism only escape from the pressure of labour on profits, was into ever more elaborate and ever more risky financial speculation and dispossession. Capital is finding it difficult to find sufficiently profitable new path of productive investment based on wage slavery, though it is trying.

Historic non-capitalist - frameworks for the organisation of labour - individualised artisanal labour on the one hand and labour under state command on the other - are not viable for obvious reasons. Neither provide the conditions for fulfilling the potential of human creativity as an inherently social process. So have witnessed historically the flaws of all three systems, respectively based on artisanal labour, state command, and labour power as a commodity. Now we must answer urgently how should we conceptualise an alternative social organisation of labour so that the human creativity of each is of benefit to all?

Why not make the foundation stone the concept of labour as a commons. This idea is only a foundation stone but it is a strong one: following the meanings of other commons, it points to the characteristic of human labour as a living resource for mutual well being, that is also in constant need of nourishing and replenishing. Understanding labour as a commons also highlights the sense in which at one and the same time it's care and its development is the responsibility of all and it's use is in the hands of every individual autonomously and in collaboration.

How do we develop this, so that it can be a useful guide for a theory and practice towards labour that is transitional from the resistance, refusal and micro alternatives to creating systemic solutions?

First we need to clarify the idea conceptually – for example it's implications for our approach to technology and the replacement of labour with machines; the questions of the boundaries of the commons (and here we can draw on work on the commons more generally).

Then we need to imagine rules for the care, development and use and more generally governance of labour as a commons (and how these functions interrelate, and how the principles governing its organisation might relate to that of other commons – for example the knowledge commons, or the possibility of a money commons).

We can learn from experiences so far of initiatives that have been been based on an implicit conception of labour as a commons, the importance of training, and education, including built into the labour process. We can learn positively from an experience like Mondragon and negatively from the scandalous waste of human creativity now evident in capitalist economies across the world, the imperative of widening the options for useful enriching work for all.

A further sphere of exploration necessary to elaborating and making practical the idea of labour as a commons is the nature of the relationships which make it possible for human creativity to be of mutual social . It is after all, a practical question. We can learn from attempts to overcome the distortions of the capitalist market, to achieve more transparent freely chosen links between producers and users and consumers; to develop democratic forms of market regulation/socialisation that again enable production and user satisfaction to be in sync.

Then we will need to return to the role of the state: with the perspective of labour as a commons and not as a commodity, we can begin to imagine two new directions for state institutions: first, towards states that are not dependant on capital as the means of activating the productive potential of labour. This would imply a transformation of the state from being a guarantor of capital to playing an important, yet to be understood, role in the protection and reproduction of human creativity.

Secondly as an employer itself, the notion of labour as a commons provides a framework for systematising the kind of realisation of creativity/productivity in the public benefit which has been demonstrated in alliances engaged in transformative forms of resistance to privatisation described earlier. It also enables us to learn from quite surprising experiences – downplayed by the neo-liberal orthodoxy – of where the state, or rather state employees, have played an entrepreneurial role in innovation and the development of new industries in the existing economy.

Finally, for any development of the framework of labour as a commons to be of practical use, we need to identify the obstacles built into existing institutions of labour – trade unions, different forms of the social economy, educational and other public institutions – and into the division between what is labour and what is not (for example, traditional definitions of consumptions, the private sphere, culture that already disguise an immense amount of non-waged labour and creation of value.

The conclusion that follows from this is an understanding of the solidarity economy not as a sector but as one of several spheres of transformative politics, interrelated and overlapping along the dimension (among others) of labour as a commons, where this is understood as one foundation of a new socially driven mode of economic development."

More Information

Detailed discussion: Employment_as_a_Common_Pool_Resource ; Labor as a Common Pool Resource

How to get there: Social Accounting


Book: Jobs, Liberty and the Bottom Line, Tom Walker, Draft: 12/07/2011